“Nihil sub sole novum,” muses Richard Papen with characteristic scholastic preciousness. Papen is the narrator of “The Secret History,” Donna Tartt’s campus-murder near-classic, and he is referring to the way in which the death (or “atomic redistribution”) of his school mate Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran is really just one more among all the other inevitable deaths.
He’s doing so in Latin because Richard goes to Vermont’s fictional Hampden College, where he is part of a snooty group of students of the (Latin and Greek) Classics, and THEY wouldn’t stoop to good old King James and “there is nothing new under the sun.”
There IS nothing new under the sun, indeed, so I kept thinking how much “The Secret History” reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Both books are about a young middle class man of muted sexuality trying to fit in with privileged snobs in a picturesque setting. Both are murder mysteries that waste no time making us wonder whodunit. Both are about the subsequent fall out, with the culprits fumbling just ahead of punishment.
I mentioned this to a friend who dryly remarked: “Why, it’s rather reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’ as well,'” to which I said: “Well, I haven’t read that yet, so it couldn’t quite remind me of the un-experienced future,” to which he retorted with a convulsive snort that sent whisky splashing over the edge of his glass: “Old boy, is there really anyone who hasn’t read ‘Brideshead Revisited’? I will take your word for it. In any case, it is surely a corrigible flaw.”
Ok, obviously that conversation never happened, because nobody talks like that outside of “The Secret History.” The book is affected and bloated, recycling its passages ponderously, like a tenured professor recycling old syllabi. I found its “too cool for school” clique of characters to be either unlikable or unbelievable, and frequently both (but I should note that hasn’t stopped a certain kind of reader from feeling as ardently about them as if they were sparkling vampires.) One thing Tartt has is a sense of geography: Hampden College is one of the more fully realized localities in literary fiction, and once you’re granted admission you can join a glamorous clique for some 600 pages. It’s escapism veneered with erudition, but people have been mailing in applications for two decades now.
RATING: I found it GOOD ENOUGH but I can see why many find it COOL!
I have found that “The Secret History” is 40% funnier if, when casting your mental movie, you have the character of Bunny be played by an actual Bunny. Say, the one from “Donnie Darko”…
….or one from David Lynch’s sitcom, “Rabbits.”